Monday, February 24, 2014

Two weeks in Mandeville, LA





Our stay in Mandeville has been extended by new friends, sites to see, easy parking and hookups, better weather and just enjoying being in one spot for a while. The day after finishing up our H4H work we were invited by our fellow RVers to go plantation touring in the country west of New Orleans. There are two must see plantations that are close enough to each other to do both in one day. They are also very different from each other and each represent a different period of history important to Louisiana. Back when France was in charge of the area the acreages along the Mississippi were carved up into long narrow parcels of land and given to friends of the authorities. They all had frontage on the river for transporting the sugar cane products and other crops that they produced. Sugar cane was extremely profitable and as the French became richer they started building large homes within site of the river. All of the work on the plantations and most of the building was done by slaves.
Map of Mississippi Plantations
Laura Big House

Cheerful colors

Slave quarters
The first plantation we visited was the Laura Plantation, named for one of the last of the family who built it and lived there for 90 odd years. It was built in 1805 in the French Creole style, meaning it was not huge, but well built, off the ground and painted in the bright, vivid colors of the Caribbean. Business was conducted in the front side of the house facing the river, and, in this family, the business was run by the women. The head of the business was called the president and that person was chosen because they were the smartest in the family. Turns out the women had the brains of the family, though several of them were less than enthusiastic about being in charge. Their lives revolved around the business of growing and selling sugar. Buyers came and went, but it was not a social life, it was a lonely life, and it seems like the men would die young or not be worth the food they were fed. Life for the slaves was horrendous, watch the movie "12 Years a Slave" if you need a refresher course in slavery. Laura was the last of the line for the original family and she utterly rejected plantation life. She wanted to get an education, speak English and be American. She also hated slavery. In 1892 Laura sold the plantation for a pittance, moved to St. Louis and never looked back. The German family who bought the plantation ran it for another 95 years. In her latter years Laura wrote a memoir which was found in the 1990's by the man who wanted to restore the plantation, it was he who gave it her name.  Laura's memoir paints a vivid picture of life on a plantation and the history of her proud and determined family. What a cast of colorful characters!
New profession for Thayer?
Slave quarters, Oak Alley
 The next plantation was very different, built in the Greek Revival style, the gracious plantation home that you have seen in movies and pictures. Oak Alley gets its name from two rows of Live Oaks, 28 of them in all, that stretch from the house to the lane in front of the river. These trees are 300 years old and no one knows who planted them way back in the 1700's. The big house was built about 1850. The plantation was built as a gift from a husband to his new bride. Unfortunately, he forgot to ask her if she would enjoy living in the country and it turns out that she did not enjoy the country. She stuck it out for a few years, bouncing back and forth to New Orleans for her socializing and shopping. Finally she just didn't come back but continued spending funds freely, entertaining and running a large home in the city. Her husband, down on the farm, was not able to keep up with her spending, got sick and died. She tried to run the farm for a few years, her son took over for a few more years but the debts were too great and they were forced to sell what they could to pay them off. Eventually a couple named Stewart bought the home, refurbished and improved it, and lived in it till they died.
Antebellum belles
Oak Alley, Big House

Beautiful tour guide
Oak Alley, interior

Oak Alley, interior
Mighty Live Oaks, 28 alongside the alley

 Today the home is a major tourist draw and is used for weddings, movies and special events. They have a restaurant, cafe and lodgings. The slave quarters were partly rebuilt to educate visitors and give them a good idea of the cramped living conditions and harsh treatment doled out to the slaves. The grounds and gardens were extensive and very beautiful, the huge Live Oaks dominating the landscape with their 130 ft. spreading branches. They can live to be 600 years old! At the Civil War tent we learned about major events of the War that happened in this area of Louisiana. There was a very learned young soldier manning the general's tent that day.
RV friends
It was a great day, spent with Jim, Sandi, Betsy and Clark, some of our RV buddies here at the church. A little bit about the Mandeville Christian is a small church with only about 35-40 members. The building sits on several acres, just off the highway going into Mandeville. Lynn and Linn are the Boondocker couple that we contacted for our stay, they have been the temporary ministers here, off and on, for several years. They are full time RVers with some property in Oregon. Kevin is the church's young(27yo) paster who is currently living in the building. He is funny and can deliver a fine sermon as well as cook up a storm on Wednesday nights for the weekly church and RVer dinner. There are two other RVs here with us, two couples from the Southwest who have been traveling together for almost a year. We have had many meals together, carpooled to the grocery store, played Mexican Train dominoes into the night and just had a great time with them. One of them is having some medical problems which has been worrisome, but they are optimistic and hopeful about the outcome. Jim and Clark are both retired military, Jim was Army, Clark, Air Force, which turns out to be very important come parade day.

Thayer and I spent two days in New Orleans. The first was a cold foggy day, midweek. It was very quiet but that made it easier for us to get our bearings and do some exploring. We took a three hour guided van ride around the French Quarter, the Hurricane Katrina disaster area, and the Garden District. It gave us a great overview of the city and helped us decide what we wanted to do on our next visit. We also took in some music at the New Orleans Jazz National Park. They have two venues for live music, on this day we heard a fantastic pianist playing some wonderful jazz, boogie woogie, and more. We practiced riding the streetcar, walking safely in the French Quarter, and staying out of trouble. 
French Quarter
Interesting stores!

Many cemeteries in N.O
N.O. Jazz National Park
U.S. Army Brass Band at the Mint
 Our second day in New Orleans was planned so that we could take in a Carnival Parade in the evening. It was a much busier day in N.O., a Saturday, a parade day, and NBA All Stars game day, it was a happening place! The streetcars and streets were full of loud, friendly people. We rode to the Garden District and did a self guided walking tour of the historic and beautiful homes of the neighborhood. So many to see, so many lovely architectural details and designs, wonderful ironwork and beautiful yards and gardens. The sidewalks are terrible so you must be careful to not fall on your head while ogling the houses. I think our favorite was Sandra Bullock's home, it just looked perfect. I don't think she spends much time there. Next, we visited the Mint, which is where the National Park has another music venue and a Jazz Museum. We were able to hear the U.S. Marine Brass Band playing loud jazz! It was fantastic, and they looked and sounded as precise you would expect of fine military musicians. We then enjoyed a wonderful Italian meal at Frankie's, located across the street from the French Market. I have never heard Thayer rave about any food the way he raved about his chicken alfredo! 
Garden District, Sandra's house
Garden District

Garden District

Garden District
Garden District

 Next up was the big Carnival Parade, featuring the Krewe de Vieux. Probably most of you know all about Mardi Gras but I'm just learning so here is what I understand about this crazy event. It starts shortly after Christmas with the Carnival season, which lasts until Mardi Gras, which lasts until Lent, and is thusly based on the Easter calendar. Carnival season seems to be the warm up for the full blown craziness of Mardi Gras. During Mardi Gras you get all of your temptations and sinning out of your system because you know you gotta be good during Lent! And then, of course, all will be forgiven at Easter, so a couple months of partying and debauchery seems like a "reasonable" thing to do so you have something to be forgiven for! Anyway, it is BIG business and many, many people are totally into it. Various Krewes (organizations of like minded, creative folks) work all year long to come up with a themes, build their floats or contraptions and make costumes, gather throwing materials and start a booze collection. In the French Quarter, on their parade night, they drink their booze collection, put on their costumes, find their float and follow it through the narrow streets. There is lots of dancing, drinking, singing, horns, laughter and music. French Quarter themes are very adult but, to my surprise, there were lots of little kids there. Some of the Krewes have been around for 100 years! Apparently, since we are only in the Carnival season, this parade was fairly tame which was fine by me. The highlight of the night was catching up with Jaime Clarke and Marshall Weinstein, visiting New Orleans from Seattle, with Marshall's parents. Haven't seen them since last June and it was fun to stand on a noisy street 3000 miles from Kenmore and shout at each other for a bit. The only bling I scored was during the afternoon before the parade when some was being thrown from a balcony.
Street String Band
Always love the mules
Carnival Parade 

Carnival Parade 
Carnival Parade 
Scales at the Mint

By way of contrast, the next day we went to a small town called Slidell for the Krewe of Perseus parade. It was very family friendly and we were deluged with bling from the 20+ big floats. There were also emergency vehicles of all types, marching bands, drill teams galore, horsemen and women, rope jumpers, bagpipers, big and little girl beauty queens, clowns, and much more! It was a fantastic parade! Not much in the way of candy compared to your typical 4th of July parade though. Sitting on the sidewalk with two retired military guys wearing their hats is a sure fire way to get the most bling around here. Because Clark and Jim kept handing their bling to Sandi, the throwers didn't think they had any so they kept throwing more stuff to them. Many people came up to thank them for their service. I'm buying Thayer a Navy hat the first chance I get!
Pre-parade entertainment
Cute minis!

Slidell parade
Slidell parade

Thayer, Jim, Clark
Jim, Sandi, me, Thayer and our haul of bling

Even the horses love Mardi Gras!
Slidell parade
I spent several days exploring the Tammany Trace Bike Trail which stretches to the north and south of the trailhead closest to the church. Biking 5 miles to the south brought me to the Fountainbleu State Park on the shores of Lake Ponchatrain. Its a big park with many Live Oaks providing shady picnic areas, big fun fountains for the kids, and several miles of nature trails. Going to the north brought me near the H4H site that we had worked on so I stopped and did a couple of hours worth of painting. The highway and streets are miserable for biking because there is no shoulder and lots of traffic. I found that the drivers were very courteous and moved over for me and slowed down. The bike path was awesome, really flat and smooth, and no one else seems to use it. I didn't do the whole thing but it is 30+ miles in length.
Little coffe shop siding along the Tammany Trace
Our two weeks in Mandeville was a wonderful interlude in our trip. We met some wonderful people, contributed to the community, explored the city and countrysides, and had plenty of relaxing time. We were kind of sad to be leaving our lovely spot but the time had come, with warmer weather on the way, to find our way to Arkansas.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Finishing Florida

The past few weeks have been a bit of a blur, ...we've just been moseying our way up the Gulf side of Florida. Along the way, we had a very nice afternoon with the manatees at Apollo Beach, near Tampa. As the Gulf waters cool down in the middle of winter the manatees abandon the estuaries and head up the many rivers and inlets searching for warmer waters. Some of the rivers have hot springs which the manatees have enjoyed for many years, but at Apollo Beach the slow motion mammals have found a hot tub of their own for their winter enjoyment –  a toasty (70 degrees or so) inlet heated by the cooling water outflow of the nearby coal fired power plant! The visitor center had a large display and canned 'propaganda' about how efficient, wonderful and non-polluting the power plant is supposed to be but I had a hard time believing it all.

The day we visited there were about 140-50 manatees lolling about and socializing in the outflow of the plant. The power company and some environmental groups have built a nice viewing platform and visitors center. We watched the manatees paddle about individually or swarm around in groups of 10-12. We couldn't tell what exactly they were doing but it was all very graceful and slow. Manatees are vegetarian, eating fresh water plants in large quantities, and face many challenges in the wild, the most dangerous being hit by speeding motor boat props. 
A thing of beauty!
Surface shot, really, lots of them!
Next up was a visit to Thayer's aunt Glenda, just outside of Tampa. She works horrendous hours at Disney but we found time for some very nice visits over our 3 day stay, and we ate out a lot! Thayer was also able to meet his two cousins, Kevin and Craig, that he had never seen before and they all really enjoyed sharing stories about the family. Their father, Jim, was Thayer's uncle and had succumbed to cancer about 12 years ago. As a lad, Thayer had spent quite a bit of time with Jim and had many fresh stories to tell Jim's boys that they had never heard. It was a great visit with some really nice folks.
Aunt Glenda and the family.
Manatee hot tub heater
Continuing northward up the coast, we arrived at Tarpon Springs, sponging capital of the US. It is a neat little Greek outpost with many restaurants, stores, and (of course) sponges! We learned about the history of the town, the many varieties of sponges, and how they were/are harvested and prepared for sale. There was also a big artsy craftsy street fair happening on the waterfront with vendors selling all kinds of hand crafted items. We rode our bikes around the neighborhoods and saw some lovely old homes. 
Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks
Sponging boat

Classic homes
Should've gotten one...
Our next destination was Homosassa, where we had a boondocker host lined up for several nights. There were plenty of things to do around this little burg. The old Yulee Sugar Mill was a small site but pretty interesting, signage helped explain the process of turning sugar cane into sugar and molasses. The little town of Homosassa also has a unique island called Monkey Island and I'll bet you can't guess the ethnicity of its residents... That's right, monkeys! About 5 or 6 monkeys have their own playground island just offshore of the largest restaurant in town. There was also lots of boating going on: fishing, kayaking, and airboat tours. It seemed like there was a fish market around every corner.

We also visited an Archeological Museum that was, unfortunately, closed. We were, however, able to wander around the site of quite complex earthen structures – constructied many years ago and comprised of about 10 Indian large mounds.

We visited a Nature Preserve Center that was right on the water and although the center itself was not much we did discover this funny sailboat/barge that is made almost entirely out of square cut lumber. The only rounded piece I saw was the lower section of the main mast. Very clever and unique but also clunky looking. Definitely not built for going upwind or going fast but you could sure haul a large load of goats or crates!
Monkey Island
Water, water, everywhere

Square lumber boat
Salt works
Cedar Key was a few more miles up the road; a very lovely little town perched out on the end of a peninsula. We rode our bikes around, enjoyed the warm weather and indulged on some very tasty Key Lime Pie. We were lucky enough to arrive just in time for a city parade held to kick off the homecoming celebration at the local high school. I'm sure there were more people in the parade than were watching the parade so we were able to recover lots of the candy treats that were being thrown to the, er, ...crowds.

I found a nice farmers market and bought some great fish that we enjoyed over several nights. It has a funny name that I can't recollect right now but was a lot like Mahi-mahi. BTW, the seafood around here is fantastic. As we left the area we stopped by Shell Mound, the site of a 28 foot high mound of shells covering several acres and created by the Native Americans over the past several thousand years. The mounds create whole new environments and ecosystems out of the lowlands that they are built upon. These coastal areas supported a complex society of people who were master fishermen and harvesters of the sea, supplying all their needs. 
Shell Mounds
Cedar Key man-made beach
With colder winter weather looming just to the north, our course turned westward into the panhandle of Florida. We spent a night in Apalachicola, which at one time was one of the largest cotton shipping towns in the US and is still one of the more prosperous small towns we have seen. The shops, restaurants and streets were quite busy without seeming really touristy. A local resident recommended Crooked Island as a favorite beach stop and, being along our way, we checked it out the following day. Crooked Island is located on a U.S. Air Force base and turned out to be very beautiful with white, sandy beaches stretching far in both directions. The panhandle coastline is much different than the west coast of Florida where there are very few beaches. We ended up spending two nights on the island and I finally spent some time painting and drawing and sitting still. Very challenging for me! I also had several nice long beach walks.
Crooked Island beach
Strange shell casings

Too bad it wasn't a little warmer!
Lotsa pretty little shells
As the weather deteriorated and we headed into Georgia, the rain turned into ice when it touched anything, transforming the road into a skating rink and our antennas into crystal stalagmites. We wisely decided to layover at a nearby Walmart and spent two nights there, using our wonderful Wave 8000 propane catalytic heater to ward off the freezing cold and keep our rig warm and toasty inside. What are the chances that the one winter I spend in the southeast happens to be the coldest one they have had in 25 years? Just my luck. 
Notice the little icicles!
snow in Georgia!

Bring out the plows! Oh yeah, we don't have any!
After the Great Ice Storm of '14, we zipped along through the continuing cold, but clear, to Saucier, Mississippi. It is not pronounced the way it is spelled and heck if I can remember how they say it.  "So-sha", I think. We spent two days there with our friends Larry and Wendy whom we met and stayed with on PEI. It was really great to see them again. In no time Wendy began whipping up wonderful food for us and Larry, being an advanced male, wasn't afraid to ask Thayer for help with his battery disconnect solenoid. Initially they thought it needed replacement but you might be surprised how hard it is to get simple RV parts from regular auto parts stores. So, Thayer just ended up taking it apart and fixing it good as new, saving $85.

We cooked sausages over the fire, drank wine and Gin and tonics and had a lovely old time with them. Over the past few years they have migrated to the same small, private campground which includes all the amenities for a reasonable price and they've gotten know all the other campers, all five rigs worth, as friends. We've found this to be typical in the RV'ing community. There aren't a lot of entertainment options nearby but I've discovered that not all people are like me – they don't mind sitting in the sun, reading and doodling around. Windy was also having computer issues that Thayer quickly solved by buying a Macbook online for them (their dime, obviously). We will rendezvous with the computer in Arkansas, Thayer will work his magic on it and then forward it to them. Sadly, Wendy will then really be able to dominate on 'Words with Friends'. I was nice enough to help her get started but now she just goes ahead and starts taking me to school! Once she gets that new machine there will be no stopping the carnage. Anyway, we had a really nice time reconnecting with some of our boondocking friends!
Wendy and Larry
An advanced male.
We continued west toward New Orleans but first there was work to do for Habitat for Humanity in Mandeville, just north of N.O. Inspired by Emerick, a SLC friend, I contacted the local H4H office, near the boondocking that we already had lined up. It took about 5 minutes to get on the schedule for this week. The three houses under construction are located less than 10 minutes away from our comfy camping spot, the Mandeville Christian Church, which has provided us with everything we need this whole week including electricity, showers, laundry, hot water, great company, dinner on Wednesday, recliners, cooking facilities.... It has been just wonderful. There are four other RVs parked here under the trees. On Super Bowl Sunday I whipped up a giant pot of gumbo and we enjoyed watching Seattle shame Denver on the big screen in the church sanctuary with our new friends (who included only one Bronco fan). We've had some cold weather, below freezing two nights in a row so having all of these conveniences has been terrific. 
Mandeville Christian Church
Building wheelchair ramps
The three houses under construction were all in the drywall phase so we were mudding and taping seams, windows, corners, walls and ceilings for four days. It was hard work! It was very tiring being on our feet all day and using muscles that haven't seen much action lately. One of the sorest areas was my left forearm, just from holding the heavy mud pan. We were working alongside a group of Mennonites, 10 young women accompanied by two couples from Ohio and Kentucky, and our H4H supervisors. We were a pretty hardy crew with some of us enjoying the relative warmth inside (unheated but out of the wind) while our other H4H folks were outside freezing! Yesterday was colder though and we could hardly feel our fingertips. At lunch Thayer and I put on long underwear and extra fleece up top. The girls were fun to work with as they chattered away in Dutch, sang songs and laughed a lot. They were strong and worked very hard for the most part, certainly harder than your "typical" teenager (boy OR girl). There was also an outside crew working on wheelchair ramps, siding and porch railings. The houses are not big but they are well laid out and will be very comfortable for the new owners.  We enjoyed our experience but are very tired and sore. Now we can get back to lounging around and seeing the country! 
One of three H4H houses
Mud me! 

Knocking out windows
Siding/handrail crew